Cheney Free Press -

By JOHN McCALLUM
Managing Editor 

The one that almost got away

Camp fire likely source of Cheney blaze

 

October 11, 2018



A wayward campfire has been determined the cause of a wildland fire that sprang up quickly last Tuesday in south Cheney, threatening several businesses and scorching almost 30 acres of woodlands before being contained.

Cheney Fire Chief Tom Jenkins said once investigators from the Department of Natural Resources were able to get into the area, they uncovered evidence of a transient camp near the fire’s origin point west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks and north of Mullinix Road. Two blackened metal car seat frames were found near a tree, while a car hood was nearby under another tree.

Jenkins said the individuals had started a campfire and were using the hood to block the strong winds — winds which gusted to a reported 35 miles per hour during the day.

“That hood blew over and fanned their fire, and once it did, it took off,” Jenkins said, noting that not only was it windy but also very dry, despite recent precipitation.

The fire, first reported at 3:40 p.m., burned a total of 27.8 acres and damaged a small area of the exterior of North Star Equipment before being brought under control. It also forced the evacuation of several businesses, Peaceful Pines Campground and RV Park and the implementation of a Level 2 evacuation order — ready to go at a moment’s notice — for other nearby areas of the city.

According to a news release from the Cheney Fire Department, the fire was contained through mutual aid responses from Spokane County Fire District 3 — whose headquarters are directly across First Street/State Route 904 from the blaze — along with units from Districts 4, 8, 9 and 10, the cities of Spokane and Airway Heights, Fairchild Air Force Base, DNR and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. But it was air support that proved crucial in helping firefighters get control of the fast-moving conflagration.

“If it wasn’t for the five Air Bosses and one air attack (aircraft) getting there almost immediately, we wouldn’t have had the same results,” Jenkins said.

Jensen also credited the wildland firefighting skills of SCFD 3 Chief Cory Rohrbach, who realized quickly that, because of the speed of the wind-whipped fire, crews were going to have to “lean far forward” and find an area to make a stand. That location was around North Star and Peaceful Pines, and fire officials applied all of their resources there to prevent the blaze from going any further.

“We knew if it got across that field (New England Cemetery north of Peaceful Pines) it could go fast (into residential),” Jenkins said.

Crews also set up on First Street as the left flank and near the railroad tracks as the right flank to prevent the fire from moving in either direction. Jenkins said had the winds shifted just a bit, the fire could have taken off in either of those directions with the potential for greater damage.

Cheney also escaped some financial damage, thanks to the DNR. The department picked up the approximately $500,000 bill for the first day of the fire due to its potential threat to Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge lands just east of Cheney across the railroad tracks.

Jenkins said he hopes to work with DNR on doing fire assessments of other city property located to the east that are also heavily wooded, such as near the wastewater treatment plant. He also said these locations, particularly in the area of last Tuesday’s fire, are regularly used by transient individuals.

“We found more debris once the undergrowth got burned up that revealed more of this activity,” he said. Jenkins added that Cheney police will monitor the area closer, and asked residents who see signs of camping activity in the area to contact the department.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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